Opinion | Much can happen during the gap between governments
By Richard Cullen, Visiting Professor of Law at HKU
US President Donald Trump was voted from office on November 3, 2020. His Presidency will be remembered as the most brazenly confrontational in living memory, both within the US and internationally. Very soon after November 3, we discovered that even greater political turmoil awaited America.
Trump and many in his Republican Party disgracefully refused to accept the election result. Despite their worst efforts, the new Biden Administration was still sworn in on January 20, 2021, over 100 days later.
Let us consider what happened during that period.
The Latin term "interregnum" originally applied to the period between when one monarch ceased to reign and the following monarch was crowned. It has since come to indicate any gap between one government losing power and the next government taking over. We have just witnessed an astounding interregnum in the US.
After Trump refused to concede, he was impeached a second time. The charge was inciting an insurrection to prevent the confirmation of Mr. Joe Biden as the new President. Trump also found himself: banned from social media; abandoned by a number of cabinet members and close aides; and disparaged by foreign leaders. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican said, "There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution."
The trial related to this second impeachment took place in the US Senate, which had to vote by a two-thirds majority to convict Mr. Trump. No other President has been impeached twice. The Senate is a body plainly divided along party lines and not a judicial body so this was not, in any regular sense, a trial. The two-thirds majority was never a serious possibility and Mr. Trump was acquitted – a second time. Interestingly, the process of deciding on Donald Trump's culpability took place after he has actually left office, another first in US constitutional history.
Apart from this primary test of fundamental illegality, much else of importance has unfolded during this space between two terms of US government.
The Guardian's Simon Tisdall captured a pivotal truth about the Trump administration when he wrote in July, last year that: "The US government shows two faces to the world. One is benign, open, and high-minded. The other is darkly dominated by selfish calculation, ultimately reliant on brute force. Pompeo, Trump's most influential adviser and possible successor, is the undisguised, snarling face of this latter form of manipulative, intrusive and mendacious American power."
Timing is important in geopolitics. Once it was clear that the Trump administration was on the exit ramp from the White House, many around the world, long exasperated with the abuse of power by Trump and Pompeo, felt an immediate sense of relief. They also saw the opportunity to act.
The new 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the new China-EU Comprehensive Investment Agreement were both signed within weeks of Trump's election defeat.
One Berlin-based expert described the Sino-EU investment agreement as a "geopolitical coup for China". The RCEP, which is now regarded as the world's largest trading bloc, excludes the US but includes China, ASEAN countries, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea. In November, Beijing also raised the possibility of China joining the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Trump withdrew the US from the original TPP during an early anti-Obama spasm in January 2017.
More recently, the Guardian detailed how certain EU countries made it clear that the planned "swansong trip" by Mike Pompeo to Europe was unwelcome, so ostracized had he become. The visit had to be canceled with awkward haste when the dignitaries Pompeo hoped to meet became unavailable.
Next, consider the "five eyes" position on the Pompeo-led, anti-China project. New Zealand has long kept its distance, Canada has become more watchful and now the UK has taken a measurable step away from this menacing scheme. Aware that Trump and Pompeo were a spent force, Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently warned that the UK should not "lurch into a position of unthinking Sinophobia".
What, though, may this all mean for the international posture of the new Biden administration? We can fairly expect that the rabid isolationist stance of the Trump administration with its fierce Sino-hostility will not continue just as before. For one thing, studies are now confirming that Trump's trade war with China has done immeasurably more harm than good to the US.
Moreover, the new Biden administration faces domestic concerns which are immensely demanding – and threatening. The Wall Street Journal recently observed that the President-elect starts his term faced with the historic challenges of COVID-19, a struggling economy and bitter partisanship and anger across the country. James Murdoch, son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, recently argued that lies propagated by the US media have unleashed "insidious and uncontrollable forces" that will endure for years.
Another reality facing Washington is that China has coped with the COVID pandemic far better than any other primary economy (outstandingly so, compared to the US) and, as a consequence, has managed to return to real growth more rapidly than expected. China has, in effect, created its own tailwind at the same time as America continues to battle a political-economic gale – likewise internally generated.
As the change of government was unfolding within a Trump-propelled political firestorm, Bloomberg reported a "sabotage" accusation against the Trump administration (by a Biden official) based on a string of malevolent, last-minute foreign policy decisions by Mike Pompeo aimed at boxing in Biden's diplomatic options. One of these decisions, which could have triggered famine in Yemen, was reversed by Biden in early February.
Still, the Biden Administration has yet to deviate significantly from the confrontational Sino-containment project orchestrated by Trump for some four years. This confirms how deep the bipartisan concern about the rise of China in Washington is. It is far too early to say that the new Washington administration is set to "rebrand" rather than radically recast the Trump Sino-phobia strategy. But it is notable how the new government has agreed with significant aspects of that previous approach. And where it has been questioned, the Biden team has largely opted for further review rather than taking action to create fresh policy directions. There are indications here, with yet more major elections looming in 2022, that it is not only the Republican Party that feels conspicuously intimidated by Trump and those 74 million Americans who voted for him.
This particular interregnum has witnessed substantially more rapid repositioning than is commonly seen. The impulsive, incompetent, regularly malevolent excesses of the Trump years set the stage for this to happen. That era has left the US with domestic challenges that are exceptionally complex. It is true that the new administration understands where it shares common interests (for example on climate change and pandemic control) with China far better than the previous government. However, the watchful embracing by the Biden team of certain radical international policy precepts set in place by Trump is just as sharply evident. This suggests that the brisk geopolitical reordering recently witnessed will continue to evolve. One more thing is clear: this extraordinary interregnum is set to cast a long shadow over all future promotion of American exceptionalism.